Feminism didn't lie to women about "having it all"

As Germaine Greer said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover".

A recent essay in the Atlantic magazine by former US State Department official and Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled 'Why women still can't have it all', has got the world talking (again) about what it means to be a true 'twenty first century woman'. The article, which claims feminism sold women an unrealistic expectation that they could juggle having children and a high-powered career, has put more than a few noses out of joint and caused widespread discussion of the issue in the States.

Slaughter suggests that the career ladder shouldn't be seen as a straight upward climb. Instead, women should be prepared to build inevitable career sacrifices into their lives if they choose to have families. Turning down a promotion to spend more time working out the kinks in the life of your wayward teenage son, as Slaughter did, could be just as rewarding as skyrocketing your career and missing every bedtime along the way; the cutthroat capitalist culture of competitively clocking in the hours (a phrase made deceptively delightful by its alliterative qualities) is the reason that the glass ceiling holds strong. Social attitudes need to change to reflect the reality of women in the workplace and as a meaningful caregiver, Slaughter continues - and women must realise that the feminist dreams of their forebears may actually have been little more than well-spun lies.

This article is depressing and uplifting in equal measure. On the one hand, it's encouraging to hear Slaughter speak of her own choices unashamedly:
she made compromises in her career (despite being an incredibly successful member of the US government policy team) in order to enjoy the formative years of her children. She took a sabbatical to go to Shanghai with her husband so that they could grow closer as a family and learn Mandarin. She insists that when she does interviews, her two children are mentioned amongst her academic and business achievements, as further evidence of her hard work and dedication rather than mitigating factors.

On the other hand, however, Slaughter does us a disservice with her use of the word 'feminism'. Her entire argument is based upon the idea that women in practice 'feel' like they want to be with their children more than men - a suggestion that she herself predicts will cause a backlash in the media. The idea that feminists were kidding themselves while ignoring their inevitable biological fate to feel inextricably tied to their children doesn't sit entirely comfortably with us. The 'lies' that they sold - as Slaughter would have it, the idea that 'women can have it all' - were actually based on the fundamental assertion that women and men are equal, and 'having it all' should be as possible for women as it is for men.

Slaughter has a lot of sage advice for ways in which we can progress culturally to make this a reality, but her entire article is heavily underscored with the idea that everything will be harder for women because we are more naturally inclined toward family life. Not only that, but it defines 'having it all' in the narrowest sense possible: a truly flag-waving, apple-pie-eating American definition of a life fulfilled, even while she suggests that we move away from placing the onus on careers as definitive of self-worth.

'Having it all' sounds terribly spoilt, doesn't it? For Slaughter, it means 'having a (high-powered) career and a family life, but when magazines and newspapers talk of women 'having it all', there's often an inbuilt assumption that this 'all' that we are supposed to possess is something that men already have, and that we need to achieve parity with them. A happy world in which we all 'have it all' may sound Utopian, because it is, but it is also a rather modern idea, built around capitalistic notions of self-gratification. Considering the fact that one of the top regrets posited by dying men is that they worked too hard and didn't spend enough time with their families, it's somewhat simplistic to assume that they are the lucky proprietors of this 'all', and that, in the interests of fairness, we must have it too. We're not sure if we even want it - it sounds tiring.

The 'feminism' that Slaughter attacks is a straw woman. Feminism was never really about slotting seamlessly into a male-dominated capitalist system, it was a revolutionary social movement. Germaine Greer once said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover". Quite. Slaughter writes about feminism as though it were a product that she bought and consumed, which then failed to live up to her expectations. Now she wants to take it back to the she shop because she didn't get to spend enough time with her children. We're not buying it.

Of course, Slaughter acknowledges that her argument is only relevant to women at the very highest echelons of the American power structure. So, not single mothers or low paid wage-slaves, but highly educated and ambitious women with certain expectations. In other words, it doesn't apply to most of us, here or in the States. Slaughter speaks of video-conferencing technology; of schools with hours that reflect office life; of paternity leave as enshrined as its female counterpart so that both partners take parenting seriously and mutually from the outset. But you can't work remotely from a supermarket checkout, and Slaughter's notion that changes to working patterns will 'trickle down' to the proles has a patronising whiff about it. Come! We will lead the poor into the Elysian Fields of equality!

The ruthlessly capitalist system in place in the US has more flaws in it than Slaughter cares to see. Of course, as is often with these things, her argument is entirely coloured by her own experiences. Which is why the debate is highly charged: almost every woman involved will have made her own choices and her own compromises and it's only natural to defend that.

This weekend, we asked a mother of nine children about 'having it all', and she said: "If they'd offered it to me on a plate I would have been too knackered to take it". Having children is exhausting, and the unfair division of domestic labour, aka 'the final feminist frontier', is barely touched upon in Slaughter's article. Perhaps what we need is some kind of conference that combines legislative reform with napping, because at the moment, the only women involved in the debate are the ones who aren't covered in baby sick. Because unlike Slaughter's argument, feminism is for everyone.
 

Feminism is about liberation and equality, not just career success. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Getty
Show Hide image

David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.